The Art of Percussion

Carl overdubbing a shaker & conga part

The Drummer & Percussionist:

*Two heads are better than one?*

**Or the two headed monster!**

I’ve been very fortunate to work with some amazing musicians. Drummers, percussionists, and other players have made the job of creating music a shear delight. On the other hand, there have been moments of extreme frustration when a musician was not grooving or connecting with the band. It could be a technical problem. Like a player not keeping good time, playing too loudly, or not playing the proper part or style. Sometimes it’s an emotional thing. Like someone thinking too highly of themselves (arrogance) or just not caring about what they are doing (boredom). Either way it makes for a bad day for the band.

For a drummer and percussionist to work together well, every aspect has to be in place. Both players must really be “locked in” to the tempo. Dynamically, they need to sound like one unit. Their parts must be carefully arranged to work well with each other, and to compliment the rest of the group. And it helps if they have at least a good working relationship, if not a real friendship.

As a drummer, I look for the percussionist to “weave” their playing into mine. The drummer is still “driving the bus” so to speak. The percussionist should never try to push or pull the tempo around. They should always try to line up their time & feel to what the drummer is doing. I want their part to compliment what I am playing and in general make the music sound great! When I’m playing percussion, I always remind myself that the drummer is the Christmas tree and I’m the ornaments. In this case, we need to see more green than silver, if you catch my drift.  😉

I’ve heard percussionist say that their drummer doesn’t play well and that they HAVE to over power them to make the music work. That could be true, but my first recommendation is to work it out first. Get with your drummer and start practicing with a metronome, or drum loops. Communicate with each other. Build a relationship where you think as a team, and learn to help each other. Music never seems to feel really good when there is a musical or personal battle on stage. *More on this later.

I can always tell when the percussionist is NOT listening to what the drummer or the rest of the band is doing. The part they play might conflict with the hi-hat or ride cymbal part. Maybe they are playing too busy. Filling every space with some sound effect or percussion fill is like having too much salt in your soup! In a case like this, I will actually have a little chat with my drum/percussion partner. I always try to be an encourager. It never helps to yell at someone or project negative emotions into the environment. There is a spiritual lesson here, but for the sake of time, let’s just focus on the technical stuff.

I will actually discuss with the percussionist about how we arrange our parts for the music we’re playing. I might ask them to NOT play for a section. Maybe they should just color the 1st verse and chorus with sound effects, and not do any “groove” parts until the 2nd verse. It all depends on THE MUSIC! What does the music really require? If there is a recording, both players should be copying what was already “composed.” Yes, I think of recorded music as a composition. Unless the leader asks for some other interpretation, play the part that already exists for the song. This is always my “default setting” for playing music.

If we are creating a part for a song I listen very carefully to what the rest of the band is doing to try to find the drum part. Then the percussion concepts should fit into that. Yes, there are times we might build from a percussion idea first. Percussion grooves are everywhere in contemporary music. Even more so now with the use of drum machines, drum loops, and sequencing. So it is a great time to be a drummer and percussionist, but ALL of the musicians must be serving the song. If what we play does not make the song work well, it’s just noise!

When setting up I prefer the percussionist to be on my right side and the bass player to my left (the hi-hat side). This allows for the percussionist to hear the kit clearly and to have a visual connection to my right side. For me, the right hand will be dictating a lot of the time keeping (hi-hat & ride cymbal patterns).  I’ve always found this helpful when setting up a drum and percussion duo in the band. It is definitely my preference when playing percussion. When that’s not possible, I still make sure I have a good sight line to the drummer, and I’m very careful about getting a good monitor mix. You have to hear well to play well.

I mentioned earlier about keeping a positive atmosphere. There should be no personal or musical battles on stage. Make sure you are communicating well with the percussionist or drummer. CAN WE TALK?!  Commit together to serve the music and the other players to the best of your abilities. If you can’t agree on what you’re playing, always use the original recordings as a reference. Also, be sure the worship leader or artist is happy with what they are hearing. It is NOT about you! Never think about getting noticed or trying to “be cool.” If you are playing great music, and striving to make the whole group sound great, you will automatically gain the respect of everyone.

A great tool for checking out your sound is to record everything you play. I’ve mentioned this in other drum articles, but it is really true for every player. As a percussionist, you can get a true perspective of what you sound like when hearing the recording from any event you play. Be objective when you listen and decide if what you’re playing really works with the music. If not, be mature enough to make the proper adjustments. You might notice your shaker or tambourine patterns don’t line up or “groove” well. Listen carefully! Do you need to push your time more or layback to make the music feel good. Are you too loud or too soft? Do you need to leave out some ideas because there is just too much going on? Hearing a recording of yourself is one of the most educational tools you can use. Be brave and do what ever it takes to improve your work.

One practical thing I look for in a percussionist is the way they angle the shaker or tambourine. The more perfectly level you play a pattern with these instruments, the more even the rhythm will sound. If you use more of an up and down hill kind of stroke the rhythm will swing more. Try it next time you practice. Take a shaker and play a simple pattern as evenly as possible. Notice the more you point your stroke towards the floor the more “uneven” or “swinging” the pattern will sound. Then come back to a perfect horizontal stroke and listen to the difference. This simple exercise well help you learn to control the feel of your groove. Try this also with a tambourine. It’s an “eye opening” experience.

Another common percussion mistake is to use the wrong style of grooves with the music you play. If you play real legit “Latin” percussion patterns in pop or rock songs, they may not fit. Even if you play them perfectly, they still may not work with the music. Again, the contemporary percussionist must know how to blend all of the styles they know and find just the right “musical” concept to fit with what the song requires.  You might have to play some very strange combination of instruments or patterns to create the right vibe.

In my set up, I use a set of 3 congas, a pair of bongos, two timbales, a djembe, a doumbek, a big low drum, an udu drum, a talking drum, several triangles, cowbells, woodblocks, aggogo bells, several wind chimes, assorted cymbals, gongs, and several cases of percussion toys. I even collect saw blades, seashells, metal and plastic pipes, and other weird noisemakers. One of my favorite sounds is a hitting or shaking a “garden weasel.” It’s that weird tool you’ve seen on T.V. Leann didn’t care to use it in the garden, but I love the sound it makes. Anything can be used as a percussion instrument, just be sure it works “musically.”

Developing your drum & percussion team into a great music machine will make you an honored duo in your band. Stay humble and focus on making the music sound great and you will never be accused of being a two-headed monster. You can truly be proof that two heads are better than one.

Psalm 133 – “How good and pleasant it is when we “groove” together in unity.” –The New King “Carl” Version (NKCV) 🙂



P.S. check out some fun drum & percussion ideas on the project I did with the pop jazz group Quad Venti @

Groove is Everything:
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Add to favorites
  • email
  • MySpace
About Carl

Carl has been a professional drummer & percussionist for over 30 years. He has played on over 80 Integrity Music projects; Maranatha Praise Band recordings 7 thru 10, & numerous other Christian, Pop, Country, Jazz, & Commercial projects.


  1. Just wanted to say how much I agree… Especially about shaker and tambourine parts. Not good if 16s are clashing and pulling the song with differing feels.

    Looking forward to doing some percussion collaborations real soon


    • Hey Simon… right on bro… got to groove together! Hope to see you soon. Special shout out to all my friends with Psalmdrummers! Keep up the good work. Blessings, Carl

  2. Great insights. Our percussionist got moved to the other side of the stage a couple of years back. Because of our monitor situation, I never really heard him. When we were together I could at least see him. Now we have a new in ear monitor system and I actually got to hear hear what we sounded like together. Not bad, considering we’ve been playing together in the praise band for 5+ years.

    Hey bro, just a note on your facebook situation, you can set up a fan page for yourself, which people can “Like” without the 5k limit. Then you can use your primary account just for close friends/family. You’ll just have to get everyone to move over to the fan page by liking it.

  3. Thanks for your thoughts Carl! It is always nice to hear what the drummer is thinking :). For methe band scenario is like my days in the millitary: teamwork teamwork teamwork! I play in a lot of contemporary settings and as a percussionist that is one of my strengths however Latin is my base and probably will always be. In many of those worlds the percussionist, conga player, or timbalero is the front man or band leader (especially in Latin jazz). I like to fuse Latin, East Indian, Latin haha, and even Middle
    eastern rhythms into the contemporary styles of worship but again this is mainly hybrid and from a prophetic standpoint so it all depends on the scenario and if it works ( like you said). Thank you for being a blessing to the worship community. I look forward to working and worshipping with you!
    William Johnson Garcia

    • so cool William… yea, add those ideas to the situation as it musically feels right. Always honor the music. You got the right idea. Blessings, Carl

  4. Hey Carl great article, I guess the e-mail blast helps!

    I must have laughed out loud 5 times, especially about Leeann & the garden weasel

    You’ve one of the few guys who really understands, and can teach, how to integrate perc and kit in a musical way. Great insights in this post.

    Maybe you can play with me on Sunday up in Hendersonville … Blessings, Rob

    • Hey Rob, so good to hear from you…. glad I could make you smile…. I’m so blessed by your encouragement. **ALSO… wow… so close to us here in Nashville, for sure, call me , & we’ll try to hook up sometime in the Hendersonville area. Good years with you at Belmont… miss you & the gang there. The Lord has us all in various paths…. Blessings on your journey, Peace, Carl & Leann too, of course.

  5. Brother Carl,

    Thanks so much for that great advice. I’m a Percussionist who converted over from drums about 3 years back so I appreciate your insight.

    Can you write an article on how the Percussionist and the Bass Player should lock together as well? Some of my mentors have said this is very important for a Percussionist to learn.

    Thanks again.

    -Julio from Chicago, IL

    • Hey Julio, … Very cool you’re doing percussion too… but keep your drum kit chops up. Some of our favorite percussionist (Alex Acuna, Sheila E., etc. etc.) are amazing kit players. Good thought on percussionist & bass players. / I actually listen carefully to the whole band and stay aware of how everything feels together. Keep up the good work. Blessings, Carl

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.